Developing the Socially Anxious Character

Adrian as played by Talia Shire in the Rocky movies.  When she
first meets Rocky, Adrian is painfully shy and withdrawn.  If any
character in fiction has a social anxiety disorder, Adrian does.
It's common in fiction for an author or screenwriter to develop a character that finds making friends difficult, whether it’s a protagonist or part of a supporting cast.

Developing a character suffering social anxiety, the most common type of anxiety, is your opportunity to create a story that most readers and audiences connect to readily: showing someone growing and changing through the events and interactions in your story.  At the same time, you're creating a character any skilled actor would love to play.

Case in point: Adrian as played by Talia Shire in the Rocky movies.  When she first meets Rocky, Adrian is painfully shy and withdrawn.  If any character in fiction has a social anxiety disorder, Adrian does.  Her character is wonderfully drawn by screenwriter Sylvester Stallone, and masterfully played by Shire.  Adrian’s growth as a person through the series is one of the more enjoyable human story arcs in any movie.

As researchers at Washington University in St. Louis point out in their recent report, making friends is often extremely difficult for people with social anxiety disorder.  To make matters worse, people with this disorder tend to assume that the friendships they do have are not of the highest quality. The problem with this perception, suggests this research, is that their friends don't necessarily see it that way.

"People who are impaired by high social anxiety typically think they are coming across much worse than they really are," said study co-author Thomas Rodebaugh, associate professor of psychology,  "This new study suggests that the same is true in their friendships."

Your key to developing these characters is to be aware of these differing perceptions of themselves and their friendships and compare this to how their friends see the friendship.  It’s a matter of point of view, which can be a source of conflict in your story.

Much more than simple shyness, social anxiety disorder is a recognized psychiatric condition in which those struggling with the affliction often live in fear of meeting new people, passing up social invitations or work opportunities for fear of being rejected, embarrassed or otherwise singled out as a failure.

By some estimates, 13 percent of people in Europe and the United States experience social anxiety disorder, a problem that ranges in severity from a fear of public speaking to fears about interacting with people in general. In the most extreme forms, this can cause your character to be a recluse.

"[In the study] the friends of people with social anxiety disorder did seem to be aware that their friends were having trouble, and additionally saw the person with social anxiety disorder as less dominant in the friendship," Rodebaugh said.

A tip from this study for developing your story and characters:  "Current treatments focus, in part, on helping people with social anxiety disorder see that they come across better than they expect they will," Rodebaugh said. "Our study suggests that's true for specific friendships as well."

Some bullies suffer social anxiety
Another twist on the socially anxious character is to understand that not everyone suffering from social anxiety is shy, inhibited and submissive. According to research by psychologists Todd Kashdan and Patrick McKnight at George Mason University, some socially anxious people act out in aggressive, risky ways.  In other words, they are bullies, and the cause of their behavior is often misunderstood. 
Suggested reading
10 Steps to
Some people with social anxiety act out with violence, substance abuse, unprotected sex and so on. For this person, bullying behavior gives them short term satisfaction, but in the long run, detracts from their quality of life.

"We often miss the underlying problems of people around us. Parents and teachers might think their kid is a bully, acts out and is a behavior problem because they have a conduct disorder or antisocial tendencies," says Kashdan. "However, sometimes when we dive into the motive for their actions, we will find that they show extreme social anxiety and extreme fears of being judged. If social anxiety was the reason for their behavior, this would suggest an entirely different intervention." 

For, you, the writer, the way you show growth and change in a bullying character should be built on this “different intervention”. 

"Recent laboratory experiments suggest that people [who are bullies due to social anxiety] can be trained to enhance their self-control capacities and thus better inhibit impulsive urges and regulate emotions and attention," says McKnight. "Essentially, training people to be more self-disciplined -- whether in physical workout routines or finances or eating habits -- improves willpower when their self-control is tested."

In English, put this character in situations where they have to learn to use self-control and to be more self-disciplined instead of reverting to behaviors that have betrayed them in the past.

Trickle-down Anxiety
A further step in developing your socially anxious character is to understand how they got this way.  As you might guess, many learned social anxiety from their parents through a process researchers at Johns Hopkins Children's Center call Trickle-down Anxiety.
  • Anxiety disorders affect one in five U.S. children but often go unrecognized.  Delays in diagnosis and treatment can lead to depression, substance abuse and poor academic performance throughout childhood and well into adulthood.
As the lead paragraph from this study states, “Parents with social anxiety disorder are more likely than parents with other forms of anxiety to engage in behaviors that put their children at high risk for developing angst of their own.

“These behaviors included a lack of or insufficient warmth and affection and high levels of criticism and doubt leveled at the child. Such constant and chronic  behaviors," researchers say, "and are known to increase anxiety in children, making it more likely for children to develop a full-blown anxiety disorder of their own.”

Is it Nurture or Nature?
Anxiety is the result of a complex interplay between genes and environment, the Johns Hopkins researchers say. "Children with an inherited propensity to anxiety do not just become anxious because of their genes, so parental behavior can unlock the underlying genetic mechanisms responsible for the disease."

*  *  *  *  *
Story Sources:
  1. Thomas L. Rodebaugh, Michelle H. Lim, Katya C. Fernandez, Julia K. Langer, Jaclyn S. Weisman, Natasha Tonge, Cheri A. Levinson, Erik A. Shumaker. Self and friend’s differing views of social anxiety disorder’s effects on friendships. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 2014.
  2.  Kashdan and McKnigh. The Darker Side of Social Anxiety: When Aggressive Impulsivity Prevails Over Shy Inhibition. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2010.
  3. Meghan Crosby Budinger, Tess K. Drazdowski, Golda S. Ginsburg. Anxiety-Promoting Parenting Behaviors: A Comparison of Anxious Parents with and without Social Anxiety Disorder. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 2012.


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